John Hersey was one of the first Western journalists to witness the devastation that the atomic bomb caused which reduced the vast part of Hiroshima to ruins. Published in 1946, Hiroshima focuses on six survivors of an atomic bomb dropped on their city. Six people from different walks of life who started that fateful day at varying distances from the centre of the explosion but who would all suffer, not just in the immediate aftermath but in the years to come as they struggle to reshape their lives after the cataclysm.
Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a reverend at the Hiroshima Methodist Church; Mrs Hatsuyo Nakamura, a war widow attempting to raise her three children; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a hedonistic man who owns a private hospital; Father Wilheim Kleinsorge, a German priest who despite his fondness and work for the community feels unaccepted by the Japanese; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young surgeon working at the Red Cross Hospital; and Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a 20 year clerk working in a tin factory and engaged to a soldier out at war.
These were six normal Japanese civilians, and at 0815 on the morning of 6 August 1945 their lives were changed forever as they were all, regardless of status or rank or position, thrown into a fiery turmoil of which they would all survive, but see things that would scar them and forever challenge their perceptions of war, and man, and life.
Some witnessed a ‘great, photographic flash’. Some who were looking in the direction of the explosion were blinded. Buildings crumbled and homes exploded. Shadows marked on the sidewalk nearer the epicentre in the form of vaporised men, woman, children. Miss Toshiko is crushed and trapped under books and shelves and the rubble of the building around her. Dr. Sasaki was unhurt but was the only doctor in the hospital able to help, and so began a grueling three day shift of nightmarish quality and exhaustion as the wounded shuffled in.
Tugged here and there in his stockinged feet, bewildered by the numbers, staggered by so much raw flesh, Dr. Sasaki lost all sense of profession and stopped working as a skilful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding.
The terror of the tremendous power of the bomb. The confusion as the emergency services were overwhelmed. Everyday life halted, paused during a painful recovery period of which some struggle through, some would die, but of which all would change. In the debris and wreckage survivors begin to rise from the ashes of their city to help whoever is still alive to help, as voices scream and cry from under rubble and bodies lie dead and dying in the streets. Groups of people evacuate to parks and rivers to avoid rolling fires that engulf streets and in those groups, scared and confused, they vomit, the skin falls from their bodies and blood streams from eyes and ears.
When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. […] Their mouths were mere swollen, pus-covered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot.
Hersey does not shy away from gory details. The scenes he narrates are visceral and horrific. But I think it’s important to mention that Hiroshima also showcases the power of the human spirit, of faith, of kindness and determination. The second half of the book details the lives of our survivors (a term coined for them was hibakushas, or explosion-affected people) as they attempt to continue their permanently affected lives in a permanently affected world.
These thoughts led her to an opinion that was unconventional for a hibakusha: that too much attention was paid to the power of the A-bomb, and that not enough thought was given to the fact that warfare had indiscriminately made victims of Japanese who had suffered atomic and incendiary bombings, Chinese civilians who had been attacked by the Japanese, reluctant young Japanese and American soldiers who were drafted to be killed or maimed, and, yes, Japanese prostitutes and their mixed-blood babies. She had firsthand knowledge of the cruelty of the atomic bomb, but she felt that more notice should be given to the causes than to the instruments of total war.
One account towards the end is particularly shameful. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who has worked hard to protect and help hibakushas, raising funds for cosmetic surgery and healthcare, is ambushed, finds himself in a television studio with cameras pointing into his face and broadcasting out to millions of Americans as a talkshow (This Is Your Life) unravels around him, centered on his life and brought face to face with the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the bomber which flew over Hiroshima and dropped “Little-Boy” onto the unsuspecting population below. Robert Lewis, who cried remorseful tears in front of the cameras but who turned up drunk and late to the show after discovering his appearance would not be resulting in a fat cheque. It felt like savage exploitation.
Throughout the final chapter, The Aftermath, which was added forty years after the initial publication, the progress of the survivors is updated, but intrusively interjected with dates detailing the “progress” of countries around the world, competing to develop atom and hydrogen bombs in a paranoid and ill-conceited game of creation. All the more infuriating when placed alongside the struggles of the hibakushas, years and years after the dropping of the bomb.
During the reading of Hiroshima and the subsequent writing of this post, political debate on the intervention and bombing on foreign countries by my own country is eerily relevant. There is no simple solution now, just as there was no simple solution in 1945. The protection of innocent lives must always be, in my opinion, imperative. Often, such decisions made on the other side of the world assume some human cost, as if nothing more can be done. It is just the way it is, a part of war.
John Hersey’s account of the bombing is haunting and emotionally exhausting. The narrative is respectful and dry, told as a story despite it being non-fiction. Hersey doesn’t need to play up or add unnecessary drama to the eye-witnesses’s tales. With his tactful delivery the truth itself is powerful enough. Hiroshima is saddening, angering, terrifying.
Kiyoshi Tanimoto was over seventy now. The average age of all hibakusha was sixty-two. The surviving hibakushas had been polled by Chugoku Shimbun in 1984, and 54.3 per cent of them said they thought that nuclear weapons would be used again. Tanimoto read in the papers that the United States and the Soviet Union were steadily climbing the steep steps of deterrence. . . He was slowing down a bit. His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.